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Comment | Comment

New Offensive against Pakistani Christians

By Yoginder Sikand,

According to a news report published in the Pakistan Christian Post, a group of Pakistani Muslim clerics have filed a petition in a Pakistani court demanding a ban on the Bible in Pakistan. This comes closely on the heels of, and perhaps also as a reaction to, the recent burning of the Quran by a Christian fundamentalist preacher in the USA, which provoked Muslim anger across the world, resulting in widespread demonstrations in different countries in which several people lost their lives.

The move to ban the Bible in Pakistan, by the clerics belonging to the Maulana Sami ul Haq faction of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Islam (JUI-S), an influential Pakistani Deobandi clerical political party, is the latest controversy centred on Pakistan’s draconian anti-blasphemy laws, which have been wielded as a tool to persecute the country’s miniscule religious minorities as well as Muslim critics of conservative clerics and which has so far claimed the lives of several people, including two cabinet ministers in recent months. A heavily marginalised, stigmatised and impoverished minority, forming just under 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population, and mainly of ‘low’ caste Hindu descent, Pakistan’s Christians fear that the demand for banning the Bible in their country will be used as yet another weapon to drum up violence against them. In the unlikely event of the ban coming into place, simple possession of their holy scripture can be grounds to land them in jail or worse.

According to a report published in a leading Urdu Pakistani Islamic newspaper, the Rozanama Islam, titled ‘Demand For a Ban on the Bible’, and penned by a certain Maulana Mohammad Azhar, Maulana Abdur Rauf Farooqui, the Secretary General of the arch-conservative JUI-S, which is known for its close relations with the Taliban, has declared the Bible contains statements that blaspheme certain figures whom Muslims, along with Jews and Christians, consider as prophets. Therefore, Maulana Farooqui contends, the Chief Justice of Pakistan should take notice of this and ban the Bible across Pakistan on the alleged grounds of promoting blasphemy, a cognizable offence according to Pakistani law that merits stern punishment, and, accordingly. The report mentions that the Muslim clerics behind the move have formed a panel of lawyers who are presently engaged in preparing a writ petition in this regard. It also relates that these clerics have announced that if the Chief Justice of Pakistan fails to take notice of it, then the petition would be filed in the Supreme Court, after which the Christian Church would have the right to defend itself.

Mercifully, not all Pakistani Muslim clerics share the views of Maulana Farooqui and his fellow maulvis in the JUI-S on the issue of demanding a ban on the Bible. Maulana Mohammad Azhar appears to distance himself somewhat from the bizarre demand. He argues that ‘there is no doubt’ that the Bible wrongly attributes ‘immoral’ qualities and actions to certain prophets whose stories it purports to narrate, and whom the Muslims, too, regard as divinely-guided men. He uses this argument to press the general Muslim claim that the Bible, as it presently is, has been ‘corrupted’. ‘There is no doubt that reading such things about prophets of God hearts the heart’, he writes. Yet, at the same time, he stresses, ‘to demand, on this basis, a ban on the Bible and to announce that one will go to court for this purpose demands, in my view, more serious consideration.’

Maulana Azhar thus seems to share the JUI-S clerics’ views about the Bible being ‘corrupted’, although he does not appear to fully agree with their demand to have the Bible banned. Reflecting a view widespread among many fellow Muslim clerics, he claims that ‘there is ample historical proof, centuries’-long, of the Jews and Christians being enemies of Islam and Muslims’, starting from earliest Muslim times. He notes that while Christians and Jews have had a long history of reviling the prophet Muhammad, but, on the other hand, he stresses that Muslims consider, as a matter of their religious belief, it to be a grave sin to denigrate Jesus and Moses and any other such figure believed by Muslims to be prophets. He also adds that the present ‘corrupted’ Bible, including both the Old and the New Testament, existed in their present forms even at the time of Muhammad and his companions but notes that, as far as he knows, ‘there is no mention in any period of Islamic history for a ban on these books’. Nor, he adds, has any Muslim qazi or judge ever imposed a ban on these texts. Moreover, he recounts, Jewish and Christian groups have lived for centuries as religious minorities in Muslim-dominated societies, where they have generally enjoyed freedom to practice their faiths and their synagogues and churches enjoyed protection. This, he writes, was despite the fact that what Muslims believe to be the ‘corrupted’ Old and New Testaments existed throughout this period. He thus seems to suggest that the JUI-S clerics’ demand for a ban on the Bible has no precedent whatsoever in Muslim history.

Maulana Mohammad Azhar opines that there is almost no chance of the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court issuing a ban on the Bible on the alleged grounds of it blaspheming certain figures considered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike to have been divinely-sent prophets. In the unlikely event of such a ban being enforced, he continues, it might give a major boost to anti-Islamic forces in other countries and to Christian extremists who might react by demanding a similar ban on the Quran. It would also further foment anti-Muslim sentiments across the world, making it even more difficult for Muslims and others to reach out to each other. Furthermore, he adds in his subtle critique of the JUI-S demand, the alleged ‘blasphemous’ passages in the Bible are best addressed through rational and logical arguments, and to demand a ban on the Bible is not the way to convince Christians of the Muslims’ claims about it.

It seems unlikely, indeed almost impossible, that the JUI-S will succeed in its plans to have the Bible banned in Pakistan. It is possible that the demand of the JUI-S clerics is a simply populist move intended to mobilise public support for the party. Yet, there can be no doubt that the move will only further heighten the pervasive insecurity and discrimination that religious minorities in Pakistan, particularly its hapless Christians, face on a daily basis.